Companies that boast 80,000 ton-per-year production or high purity levels don't always impress Kiril Mugerman, mining analyst with Industrial Alliance Securities. Why? Because finding buyers for all those tons is a huge challenge, and thrifty end-users like to purify lower-grade graphite in-house. In this interview with The Mining Report, Mugerman explains why he looks for smaller projects that can hit revenue targets, and indicates which of the 176 graphite projects out there are worth your attention.
The Mining Report: In May 2012, you described graphite as "the black gold of the 21st century." Do you still believe that?
Kiril Mugerman: By "black gold," I was referring to both the rush-in exploration for graphite and to the potential high demand for it. I still believe in strong demand for graphite, and that could result from the proliferation of electric vehicles, new modes of power storage, graphene and many other applications.
TMR: Are new applications behind graphite demand?
KM: For new growth in demand, our main focus remains the increased use of graphite in batteries and energy storage. As for the more traditional demand, because graphite is a unique material, it is used in many different applications that contribute to a steady growth in demand over the long term. It's used in refractories like crucibles and in blast furnaces, for friction materials like brake linings and pads in cars, as well as in lubricants, electrodes, steel making and nuclear reactors. Construction materials, industrial paints and heating and heat conductivity systems that use graphite are all already being used in the industry.
As far as exponential growth in demand goes, electrification of vehicles and energy storage are the two technologies most likely to accomplish this.
TMR: Graphene has been described as a material with almost unlimited potential. Do you think that's true or hype?
KM: The potential is certainly there. I've had the opportunity to visit some of the private companies in this field and see some samples and applications they are working on. It's fascinating. Unfortunately, it's still in the R&D stage, and it's too early to say which applications will become reality.
TMR: What's your forecast for graphite supply and demand?
KM: Chinese growth slowed down over the last 18 months, and the steel industry slowed down with it. So, of course, demand for graphite for the steel industry declined as well. But as we expect to see increased growth from the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China), we should see short-term demand increase by 1–2%.
In the longer term, we model a 2.5% annual growth in demand and a 2% annual increase in production.
TMR: So graphite supply will not meet demand.
KM: We do expect some supply shortages. To balance that, we forecast four new mines to go into production between now and 2020, with average production per mine of 20,000 (20K) tons per year. In total, we see a shortage of 80K tons per year by 2020.
TMR: China is responsible for 70% of world production of graphite. Can the West depend on China for graphite?
KM: For now, definitely. If no mines open up in the next five years, China will still be able to increase production. However, the fact that we depend on China doesn't necessarily mean we should. Many end-users have said they do prefer to have other options.
TMR: You wrote in November 2013 that graphite prices are "still looking for a bottom." Why is that the case?
KM: We suspect it's a result of weaker demand, increased production leading to the 2012 peak in prices and, of course, stockpiling.
TMR: Will this trend change, and, if so, when?
KM: First, we want to see some stabilization in prices. If prices level off more or less where they are right now, that would be a positive. It will persuade end-users that they can resume larger-volume buying, which would reverse the trend.
TMR: You also noted in November 2013 that in the 18 months since May 2012, the number of Western graphite companies and projects had effectively doubled from 36 to 73 companies and from 98 to 176 projects. How many of these companies and projects could be serious contenders?
KM: Of those 176 projects, we have isolated 17 that we actively track, and these are spread between the top four categories in our graphite pyramid diagram. Those projects are run by 16 companies.
TMR: Is it true that graphite projects can be brought to production much quicker than precious or base metals?
KM: This was the view presented in 2012 by many junior graphite companies. They argued that graphite projects require simple flotation and very basic beneficiation. But these companies discovered that this was not the case because many management teams lacked experience in industrial minerals. We see two main challenges industrial miners usually face. First, detailed end-user product specifications significantly affect the product asking price. Second, companies need to find buyers; there is no central graphite exchange or a refinery to buy a company's entire output. So sales and marketing is a major risk when it comes to graphite.
Many graphite companies floundered with projects that required a lot of metallurgical processing in order to understand what kind of material they would be supplying and how much quality they could preserve. That delayed several projects significantly. In addition to that, because the projects tend to be fairly small, you need to keep capital costs low in order to keep the project economic.
TMR: There's a great deal of confusion among investors regarding the relative importance of flake versus vein graphite. Could you provide some clarity here?
KM: Sure. Vein graphite is a niche market supplied exclusively by Sri Lanka. It differs from flake in its crystal structure, which gives it properties that allow end-users to use it in specific applications. Flake graphite is the more traditional material with a wider variety of uses.
Because industrial minerals' end-users buy graphite based on its various properties, they cannot simply change their input materials without either having to tweak their production line or make decisions that affect the end product.
TMR: There is also confusion regarding the question of graphite purity.
KM: All graphite can be purified to 99% by either the wet chemical method or the dry thermal method. It's only a question of cost.
End-users will often purify the concentrates they buy to the exact specification they require. They might decide that graphite purified to 99% by the miner is too expensive, and they won't pay the premium. They might decide instead to settle for 94%, 96% or 98% purity and perform the additional purification themselves. Graphite miners will say that they intend to produce at 99%, but they still need to find buyers willing to pay the premium.
TMR: Is it particularly expensive for producers to bring their graphite up to 99% purity?
KM: I don't think we have seen any costs officially declared by any of the juniors, but we expect that reaching 99% purity could add a significant portion to the operating costs.
TMR: So when graphite companies tout their particularly high purity, is this an empty boast?
KM: A junior that announces 99% purity does not stand out because, as I mentioned, end-users can do this themselves. To find a project that will be able to mine graphite directly at 98% or achieve 99% from floatation, that's a different story. That demonstrates a potential low-cost operation that could sell at a premium.
TMR: In your evaluation of advanced-stage graphite projects, what criteria distinguish the best projects?
KM: We look at flake distribution and purity levels. The former is somewhat of a proxy for the latter. Larger flakes will tend to have higher purities. With both larger flakes and higher purities, companies can command higher prices. That's the first criterion and a very important one.
Second, we look at the annual production the company is targeting. Many companies have issued studies suggesting they can produce 50K or 80K tons per year. But considering that the market for flake graphite is anywhere between 400K and 500K tons per year, that is a lot of product being added to the market from just one mine.
TMR: So you prefer smaller projects?
KM: We prefer a project that can give us 20% internal rate of return (IRR) at 20K tons per year instead of a project that will produce 80K tons per year, because being in industrial minerals means you must sell those 80K tons to a multitude of customers. As I mentioned earlier, unlike precious metals mines, you cannot ship all of it to one refinery that will buy it from you. The marketing risk becomes very high for projects that must sell a very large amount of product in order to reach high rates of return.
TMR: Is flake graphite typically mined in open pits?
KM: All current graphite projects in development will be targeting open-pit operations.
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